Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Jaggery

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. here is one paragraph taken from the section that examines various aspects found with Burmese society, the focus of this section being jaggery:


Jaggery is often referred to as “monk’s candies” or “Burmese chocolate” since it is allowed under the rules of the Vinaya after noontime, and meditation centers often have big bowls of it at the 5 pm tea break, where Burmese yogis help themselves liberally. Some Westerners don’t care for the extreme sweetness of the snack, but others following eight precepts appreciate the sustenance and energy boost it gives, without the subsequent drop that comes from processed sugars. This may be explained due to the fact that jaggery is a simple carbohydrate that provides easy energy on intake through oxidation, but as it is more complex than white sugar it is digested and absorbed more gradually and doesn’t risk overwhelming the internal organs. It is interesting that while jaggery is served after a meal, research has shown that it can be an effective digestive agent by activating the digestive enzymes and itself changing into acetic acid in the stomach. Other studies have shown it to help with constipation and provides a good source of minerals, especially iron, and local folk wisdom holds that when boiled it eases the menstrual flow. Burmese dogs would agree with this, as they seem to know it as a “cure-all” and many will delight if you pass a piece or two to them. The toddy syrup is also an important ingredient in many traditional Burmese medicines, and is mixed with betel to cure fevers and crushed and fried in oil to relieve an upset stomach. In Myanmar it’s possible to buy jaggery made from either sugar cane or palm trees, although it is formerly the latter, and most comes from the Bagan region, specifically the region east of the Tuyin Hills. Here many families’ livelihoods come from the dangerous business of scaling the toddy palm (Borassus flabellifer) trees, using a 15-foot bamboo ladder fastened together by fibers of toddy palm itself and placing an earthenware pot to collect the sap. In fact, no part of the tree is useless, as its wood makes timber, the leaves make utensils, the deedpods can be tried and made into folk art boxes, and its seedlings can be roasted and eaten over empty fires. After scaling 8-10 trees per day, the sap is then boiled and stirred continuously until it becomes thick and golden brown, whereupon small pieces are separated by hand and left to dry. It’s possible to visit some sites around Mandalay and Bagan to see this business first-hand. Sometimes the liquid will also be mixed in fruit juice or added to yoghurt or coconut milk, and even poured over popcorn. Alternatively, it can also be collected and fermented to a make a foul-tasting, sometimes lethal moonshine drink in rural areas.
One Western monk who has been in the country for many years sees parallels between the production of jaggery and how Burmese culture has preserved dhamma practice. He writes:

“The essence of a system, of a culture or of a religion is what is most important to preserve. That essence, however, cannot be preserved unless extra elements come into play, and this could be denoted by anything coming under the label ‘tradition.’

“For example, the essence of a tree, let say, the ‘sweet palm tree,’ is its sap or molasses that can be collected from its flower. From that syrup is made the jaggery, and in a way we could also say that jaggery is the essence of that tree. This is what seems the most important. For the continuation of the species, for its preservation and further production, however, the bark and the foliage are as much important.

“In the same way, a tradition is for the protection of the essence of a culture, as is the bark and foliage is for the sap and sugar of a tree. In respect to Buddhism, we could add that its philosophy has not and should not be based merely on tradition. A tradition should be questioned, but nevertheless not be rejected totally. An intelligent attitude will always be the support for lasting healthy social dynamics.”

Typical Scene from the Burmese countryside